What could be cooler? In the midst of the most beautiful maze of wine trails, in the highly acclaimed Finger Lakes region of New York State, you can visit more than a dozen artisanal cheesemakers. Talk about the perfect pairing. And just as the wineries come together each year to throw a huge wine party, the cheeseries do the same. This year the big event—the 5th Annual Finger Lakes Cheese Festival—is taking place on Saturday, July 23rd (www.flcheesetrail.com).
As a seminar presenter at the previous festivals, I can give you an eyewitness report that this is not to be missed. There is something for everyone. Music, wine, beer, cider, cheese, jams, jellies, salsas, barbecue, ice cream, art and much more—all of it home grown in the Finger Lakes.
But the focus is on the incredible cheeses. Hosting this year’s event is Sunset View Creamery, located just outside of Watkins Glen in the town of Odessa. Operated by the Hoffman family, Sunset View is one of the members of the cheese trail, and specializes in delicious Cheddar, Monterey Jack, and Parmesan style cheeses. This farm is well worth visiting just on its own. But on festival day, you will be able to experience not only Sunset Views cheeses, but a taste of other stellar cheese producers like Tin Fish Farm and Side Hill Acres (both produce outstanding goats milk cheeses, or chevres). Kenton’s Cheese Company makes a creamy Brie that is one of the first soft-ripened cheeses to be made here. Shtayburne Farms offers an eclectic mix of flavored cheddars and curds for the adventurous that include Blazin Buffalo Wing, Horseradish, and Jalapeno. Bring it!
Also in attendance will be Crosswinds Farm and Dairy and their mouthwatering fresh and alpine cheeses. Engelbert Farms has built a reputation on its organically made fetas and goudas. Finger Lakes Dexter Creamery makes a very unique cheese from kefir cultures, and is completely raw milk based. Heaven Scent Farm is focused on jack cheeses. And the newest member of the trail is Parulski Farms, whose homemade wares include spicy Cajun cheese curds, a raspberry flavored jack, and a garlic sriracha cheddar. Is your mouth watering yet?
But the real celebration here is all about our hard-working artisanal producers. Artisanal cheese refers to a cheese produced “by hand” using the traditional craftsmanship of skilled cheesemakers, as opposed to cheeses made in factories using more highly automated processes for mass production. Artisanal cheeses are known to be much more complex in taste and personality. Many are aged and ripened in small individual batches, resulting in very unique flavors. This contrasts with the milder flavors of factory produced cheeses that are made on a larger scale and often shipped and sold immediately. Some artisanal cheeses are also referred to as “Farmstead” cheeses. This means that the cheese is made by hand, with milk from the producer’s own herds of cows, sheep, or goats. Which in turn means awesome quality and a signature flavor that is impossible for any other cheese to imitate. As with winemaking, cheese making is a labor of love, and each and every product is a signature of its terroir.
The Finger Lakes Cheese Trail connects all of the cheese making dairies throughout the region. It is difficult to travel the entire trail by car, and the visitor hours are limited depending on the farm. So having the cheese makers all in one place on the same day is a wonderful treat.
In past years, as I walked the festival, I often heard the phrase “I can’t believe this is being made right here in New York!” But believe it, because you can attend seminars and classes and pairings all day (some free, some for $2), or just wander the food stalls and graze. You can feast on pork barbecue and wood-fired pizza. Macarollin’, the gourmet mac and cheese truck from Rochester, will be driving in for the event. Chef Christopher Bates, of FLX Wienery, will teach a class on cooking with cheese (as well as sell his gourmet hot dogs). Chef Brud Holland of Finger Lakes Made will do a cheese-making demo. Julia Lapp, an Ithaca College professor who teaches, among other things, courses on food and society, will present a seminar on the history of New York State cheese with Ann Duckett, of Little Bleu Catering & Events in Rochester. (Julia and Ann are working on a book on the same topic, which will also provide a map of New York cheese makers.) The Village Bakery will be on hand with hand pies, as well as a gourmet cotton candy maker. And this is only a sampling!
For this wine and cheese lover, I must admit that the highlight of this festival is getting to meet the animals that make it all happen. You can even try your hand at milking a goat. Kids (the human ones that is), get in free if they are under twelve years old. Adults are $5 in advance, and $8 at the door. Now that is one great way to spend a day.